Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Media's Thumb On The Scale On Christmas Issues

Here's another misleading Christmas article by Time. We get this sort of thing year after year, from so many media outlets. Liberal sources, like Time, run stories critical of a traditional view of Christmas, while more conservative sources in the media tend to either not respond or respond with a shallow affirmation of traditional beliefs.

Ashley Ross cites Luke's comment about Jesus' approximate age (Luke 3:23) and tries to turn it into something Luke "slightly miscalculated", which is "confusing". Since Luke is giving an approximation, how does that involve miscalculation or confusion?

Much of her article is about extrabiblical traditions, like whether Jesus was born on December 25. She raises the common objection to shepherds tending their flocks in winter and Joseph and Mary traveling at that time of year. She doesn't interact with the counterarguments, like the ones I bring up here.

Regarding Pope Benedict XVI's book on the infancy narratives, she writes:

In his 2012 book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict himself cast doubt on many recollections of Jesus’ birth as well.

She makes that comment just after citing David Van Biema's 2004 article in Time that cast doubt on the general historicity of the infancy narratives. But the Pope's book, which I reviewed here, is conservative on those issues of historicity. The Pope does cast doubt on matters like whether Jesus was born on December 25, which is an extrabiblical issue. He's generally conservative in his view of Christmas, though. It's misleading for Ross to associate the Pope's book with Van Biema's article the way she does.

She mentions the lack of "forensic" and "physical" evidence for the infancy narratives. We don't have that sort of evidence for the vast majority of historical events. That doesn't prevent us from concluding that a lot of those events are probable, even highly probable. We have good evidence for Jesus' Davidic ancestry, his Bethlehem birthplace, and many other aspects of the Biblical accounts. (See here, for example.) Even non-conservative scholars often acknowledge that.

She goes on to discuss the extrabiblical tradition that Luke 2:7 refers to an inn. She correctly notes that the passage isn't referring to an inn, but instead is about guest accommodations in a house. But just after addressing how the passage has been misunderstood by a lot of people, she cites a 2014 survey concerning how Americans view the historicity of the infancy narratives. She lumps the two together and comments:

Many Christmas celebrants, however, seem unconcerned about textual proof: a 2014 Pew Survey found that 65% of American adults believe anyway that the Christmas story is factually true.

How does she get from a common misunderstanding of Luke 2:7 to the notion that people are "unconcerned about textual proof" and believe the Christmas story "anyway"? Throughout the article, she keeps mixing these things together. She confuses categories by suggesting that the alleged unhistorical nature of some extrabiblical traditions means that the Biblical accounts are in doubt.

The 2004 article she cites by David Van Biema was part of what got me involved in studying and writing about the infancy narratives in more depth eleven years ago. Around the same time as Van Biema's article, a similar article appeared in Newsweek, both of them misleadingly critical of the infancy narratives and both not receiving much of a response from Christians.

The media continue to cover Christmas issues in a highly irresponsible way. Why do they keep running stories on how the Biblical accounts and extrabiblical traditions supposedly are in doubt or disproven, yet give far less coverage to research that's more supportive of traditional views?

Earlier this year, the final volume in Craig Keener's monumental commentary on Acts was published. It has implications for the historicity of Luke's gospel, including the infancy narratives. A few years ago, Keener published a landmark study of miracles, which included a lot of documentation of miracles in the modern world. In 2013, Richard Bauckham delivered a lecture arguing for the historicity of Luke's material on Jesus' infancy. He's made similar comments elsewhere. Van Biema's 2004 article, which Ross cites, and the Newsweek article that came out around the same time depended heavily on the scholarship of Raymond Brown. And Brown's work has been countered by more conservative scholarship for many years. When will the media give more coverage to the other side of the debate? When will conservatives, in the media and elsewhere, start providing a better response than they have so far? Part of the reason why the media keep doing this is because they get so little substantive pushback. And they know that what they're doing is moving the culture in their direction, especially when their opponents are as incompetent in responding as they've usually been.


  1. When will the media cover the conservative side of the debate? Likely never. It doesn't serve their purposes to do so. They want to continue to frame Christian belief as private, marginal, and unsophisticated. Furthermore, most journalists have a very poor understanding of these matters and apparently not a lot of motive to become more informed.

    I'll take this opportunity to thank you, Jason, for the hard work you clearly invest in your many articles. Whenever I see your byline I know the material will be worth my while to read.

    1. I would like to second Ken Abbott's opinion on the quality of Jason's work.

    2. I appreciate the encouragement.